In Paris’s symbolic Place de la République, under the watchful gaze of France’s allegorical figurehead Marianne, the skateboarders are not in the mood to discuss politics.
For the young here, as everywhere, life has been paused during a pandemic that has halted studies, jobs, socialising and parties. What they want is their lives back, not to talk about an election.
“Right now, there are more important things to worry about,” says one young skateboarder.
Outside Paris it is a different story. In the provinces, the race to the Elysée has started. This time next year, France will be between rounds of what is set to be another bitterly contested – and hopefully post-Covid – presidential election.
Opinion polls suggest the first-round vote will again feature a colourful range of candidates from across the political spectrum, all of whom will be eliminated, leading to the deja vu of a runoff between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.
Like the youngsters in the Place de la République, Macron’s administration has more pressing Covid-related issues to deal with, but Le Pen is in full campaign mode. On Friday, she tweeted that her Rassemblement National (RN) party had found its election HQ in Paris’s chic 16th arrondissement.
In Burgundy, the RN has got a head start on rivals, putting up its posters on municipal noticeboards and posting flyers through letterboxes, urging voters to get behind the RN candidate in June’s regional elections.
Head south to Provence, a far right stronghold, and the RN is being tipped to easily win both rounds of the regionals, though locals stop short of saying they are ready to hand her the keys to the Elysée.
Claude Millesi, 72, who lives in Nice, said he would be voting for Le Pen for president because “it’s time for a change”, but the owner of a popular coffee shop in nearby Cannes said that while the whole area was “pretty rightwing”, he felt the RN’s moment had passed. “Nobody wants racism and civil war,” he said.
Macron’s popularity is currently hovering at about 37% – low but still considerably higher than that of his two predecessors at the same time in their mandate – 29% for Nicolas Sarkozy and 17% for François Hollande – though both turned out to be one-term presidents.
In the middle of a health crisis that Macron has described as a “war”, presidential advisers believe it would be a disaster for him to even mention next year’s election, let alone announce he is seeking a second term. Le Pen has been less backward in coming forward to make her third bid for the presidency.
Asked if Le Pen could win, Sylvain Crépon, a senior lecturer in politics specialising in the far right at the university in Tours, says a victory is “possible, but not probable”.
“Six years ago, we could be almost certain Marine Le Pen would not win an election. That has changed. She has a better chance than last time but we have to put any potential victory in context,” he said. “A general election will follow the presidential, and the RN has few local or regional representatives, few elected representatives in parliament, very little financial means and not that many voters.
“Of course it would be a revolution if she were to be elected but she doesn’t have the capacity to put her politics into effect by getting a majority in parliament and forming a government.”
The most likely result of this would be cohabitation with the mainstream right, resulting in a dilution of her power. However, a President Le Pen would still be head of the armed forces and responsible for defence and foreign policy.
“She could still do a lot of damage,” Crépon says. So far, nine candidates have thrown their hat in the presidential ring, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon for the hard-left party France Insoumise (Unbowed France). It seems unlikely the Socialist party can come up with a credible presidential hopeful in the next 12 months, and even less likely they will stand a chance of winning. For a brief moment, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, seemed the Socialists’ brightest hope, but recent estimates have put her first round result at a disastrous 5-10%.
However, the opposition Les Républicains could pull a charismatic candidate – perhaps the popular former prime minister Édouard Philippe – out of the political hat.
Of the 27 opinion polls published since the beginning of 2021, all suggest it will be a rerun of 2017 with Macron and Le Pen head-to-head in the second round. Of the 12 second-round polls published, none has Le Pen winning.
But political analysts point out that the polls may not be worth the graph paper they are printed on. Alexandre Dézé, a professor at Montpellier university and Sciences Po in Paris, said the polls had become a form of “self-fulfilling prophesy”.
“It’s pure manipulation, and they’re worth nothing at all. How can you ask people what way they will vote when we don’t even know who the candidates are and we have no idea of their programmes?” Dézé told the Observer. He insisted the RN “remains dangerous and anti-democratic”.
“It’s the party of people who are fed up and want to vote for Le Pen as a protest,” he said. Like Crépon, he pointed out that the RN still has few mayors, local councillors or elected representatives in parliament. The party has just one senator in the upper house, and six MPs in the 577-seat Assemblée Nationale. That Le Pen is able to do so well is because the far right has become a “personality cult”, Dézé said. “It’s not a party of power, but with the mainstream right and left weakened, she could find herself in the second round.”
Christèle Lagier, a political scientist at Avignon University, says if Le Pen makes it to the second round, she will again face the problem of forging alliances to attract voters from other parties. “She will need allies, and I don’t think she is going to make them between now and then,” Lagier said.
Dézé agrees. “The two-round vote system is not favourable for the RN because they have to make alliances and they’ve always had trouble doing that,” he says.
Crépon, Dézé and Lagier all admit that not knowing exactly who is standing or on what programme makes guesswork a year from the election impossible, but they are convinced abstention will be a major issue. Leftwing voters who supported Macron in 2017 to form a “Republican Front” to keep Le Pen out have said “enough”.
“Many people voted for Le Pen in 2017 but have said they won’t do it again. However, if up against a wall, who knows?” Crépon says.
Another unknown is whether Macron will suffer what the Elysée has called the “Churchill Effect”. Will a pandemic-weary population reject him – as Britain did to its wartime leader in the 1945 election – and seek to turn the page if the country emerges from the Covid crisis?
In the last two presidential elections, the shoo-in candidates whose victory was almost guaranteed – Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2012 and the rightwing François Fillon in 2017 – were tripped up by unforeseen events just weeks before the presidential election.
If a week is a long time in politics, as the 1960s British PM Harold Wilson once suggested, a year in a French presidential campaign is an eternity during which events have taught voters, pollsters and analysts that nothing is certain and everything can change.